The leadership roles of early Greek immigrants in American business and industry do not often see mention, and the notion that Greek immigrants were not innovators and leading businessmen in a host of enterprises – that the waves of new Greek arrivals did not bring any of their traditional trades, crafts or work related knowledge to North America – is one of the most pernicious and enduring errors of the first writers of Greek-American history.
Even a cursory reading of Greek-American history demonstrates that the very first waves of Greek immigrants were owners/operators of large numbers of confectioneries/candy stores, nickelodeons and movie palaces, produce/grocery stores, all manner of restaurants as well as outstanding figures in the fishing industry of the nation along all coastal shores.
Such was the overall success of Greeks in American-based business that Greek language researched and published business guides were annually issued from at least 1910 to at least 1930.
These directories were explicitly issued to alert the Greek community of the potential market of Greek-to-Greek production and sales contacts.
All this says nothing of the Greek-owned buying cooperatives such as in the confection and the produce industries and then again among those involved in sponge fishing and sheep ranching.
Another strand in this complex business skein were the various Greek purveyors who formed import/export companies to bring specific items not only from Europe to America but literally from their offices in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere to any customer or store in the nation.
While Greek yogurt is now all the rage in the American food industry both as a specific product and as a symbol of high quality foodstuffs somehow the nearly 150 years of Greek involvement in enterprises such as sheep and goat ranching, the dairy business and their sizable contribution to the milk and cheese industry is all but utterly ignored.
The time-honored showcasing of such products as “Colorado lambs” in high-end restaurants across the nation also somehow omits the leadership role Greek-Americans have and continue to play in this aspect of fine dining.
Once begun, any exploration into the field of Greeks and ranching in North America becomes nothing short of colossal in scope and complexity. I begin here with those individuals who were first recognized by Americans after World War I, then proceed from one cluster of news accounts and source material to another. This will offer something of a view onto this long-overlooked and complex field of study.
After World War I, the dependence of America on imported milk and cheese products became eminently clear. The reported ease with which one could raise and or keep goats and sheep on small lots of land was broadly touted during and immediately after the war to end all wars. Nicholas J. Nassaikas was a favorite of the American goat and sheep industry. These are not just newspaper accounts but also industry magazines/periodicals. Arriving in 1910, from his home village of Steno, within less than 10 years Nassaikas owned and operated an 840 acre farm near Manchester, New Hampshire with some 600 goats. Nassaikas operated a grocery store and import/export company out of Manchester.
In 1916, “A Visit to a Grecian’s Goat Farm” by Elmer F. Dwyer appeared in the American Goat Keeper magazine. Dwyer offers a detailed account of his visit with Nassaikas carefully providing the Greek’s ideas and practices with goat herding, milk, meat, wool and in the real world necessities of farming and keeping pastures cyclical grazing, forest brush clearance and maintenance and the benefits of manure. In this account we learn that in 1915 Nassaikas imported 250,000 lbs. of goat cheese while he produced and sold some 100,000 lbs of feta, romano, kasseri, and manouri. So, who was buying all this cheese? Nassaikas was neither the only Greek immigrant cheese producer nor the only one making traditional Greek cheeses for an American market.
As a case in point, the Lyndonville Creamery Association in Bradford, Vermont was producing some 500 lbs. of Greek cheese a day by at least 1919. Arthur Repas is identified in various news accounts as one of the Greek cheese makers associated with this company.
Another mystery is that while Dwyer notes Nassaikas purchased many of his goats “from the West” he also mentions and describes seeing “Greek goats” as well. Did this mean Nassaikas had brought Vlahiki, Skopelos, or Karystos goats to New Hampshire from Greece? While one can find one badly written article after another on Classical Greeks and their “goats” I have as yet to find a news article about goat breeds native to Greece. In the end Nassaikas, due to the articles written about him in the American press, was soon dubbed the largest Greek goat herder in the nation. Without taking anything away from Nikolaos J. Nassaikas’ many achievements Greek ranchers were and remain scattered about the nation.
Our single account of Greek shepherds in the published literature is found in the 1976, issue of BeeHive of the Utah State Historical Society by the late Helen Zeese Papanikolas, “The Greek Sheepmen of Utah.” Without naming specific individuals, an especially uncharacteristic detail of this fine researcher, Papanikolas notes that in the early 1920s, “with the closing of the Greek boarding houses, the meat suppliers decided to become sheepmen in the real sense: breeding, raising, hay for feed, shearing in the spring, and selling their animals in fall in Denver, Kansas City and Chicago.
“Now the sheepmen returned to the life they knew best from childhood, although now their sheep were numbered in the thousands, not in the tens and twenties. They trailed their sheep from summering into the Oquirrh Mountains, the high country around Scofield, Carbon County, and the Uinta Mountains. When these areas became overgrazed, they leased rich land around Craig and Grand Junction Colorado, but most of them still lived in Utah.” While Papanikolas’ focus here was Utah and Colorado early Greek ranchers were to be found throughout the West.
In the January 1921 edition of the American Sheep Breeder and Wool we hear, about James Chiflakos’ Yolo County California sheep and goat ranch. Chiflakos was the former editor of a Greek newspaper in St. Louis who decided to start his own ranch. When visited Chiflakos ranch was said to have “several thousand ewes milked daily.” This account also notes Chiflakos’ cheese plant in nearby Esparto. Then, out of nowhere, we hear “[T]his is not the place to tell the story, but it may be of interest, in connection with what is being done with sheep in California, to say that a number of milk goat cheese farms and plants have been started in recent years by immigrants from Greece.”
Once sought after, published accounts of highly successful early Greek immigrants involved in goat and sheep ranching fall from the pages of history. Many of their descendants still play leadership roles in this industry. Greek-Americans are among the less than one percent of the population that feeds the rest of the nation.
How have their efforts, achievements and ongoing contributions remained hidden for so long?